Pitching breakouts can happen at any point in the season, but when they start in the middle of the season sometimes they get missed because the ugly full-season numbers camouflage that second half goodness. Struggling hurlers use the All-Star break to hit the reset button, try something new and experiment with their pitch mix. Sometimes, they hit the jackpot and their numbers improve with work and dedication.
Join us in assessing the evidence to see whether these pitchers had a breakthrough in performance or if they were just lucky. We already did it last week with hitters, now it’s time to examine things from the mound.
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Second Half Surgers
Here are some of the pitchers with improved numbers after the All-Star break. However, not all of these performances are sustainable. We will take a look into each pitcher, starting with:
Eduardo Rodriguez: Second Half Pitch Selection
First half stats: 102.2 IP, 4.65 ERA, .267/.326/.436, .321 wOBA, 3.31 K/BB, 1.34 WHIP, .324 BABIP, 71.9 LOB%, 4.10 FIP, 45.4 GB%
Second half stats: 100.2 IP, 2.95 ERA, .239/.321/.343, .292 wOBA, 2.49 K/BB, 1.31 WHIP, .309 BABIP, 83.3 LOB%, 3.62 FIP, 51.9 GB%
Considering that his career BABIP is .299, the .309 mark he registered in the second half isn’t necessarily a fluke. He was unlucky prior to the break (.324 BABIP) and while fortune helped him a little bit more in the second half, we can’t say his performance isn’t legit because his .309 register is still higher than his career number.
The one number that seems slightly out of proportion is his second half left-on-base percentage (83.3 LOB%.) His career mark is 75.2%.
Rodriguez managed to shave 1.70 points of his ERA between halves. He improved his wOBA, WHIP (albeit marginally) and FIP.
The biggest improvement came in limiting the long ball: Rodriguez allowed 1.31 HR/9 before the break, and 0.80 in the second half.
Rodriguez increased the usage of his sinker and his changeup from 2018 to 2019. Now, his K/BB got worse after the break, but he got substantially more groundballs in the second half than in the first (51.9 to 45.4 percent.) It’s likely that those two pitches were behind the surge in worm-killing tendencies. He started using his sinker more against lefties, not just versus righties, and it seems to have paid off.
If you want to compare Rodriguez’s halves, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. However, we feel confident saying that his true talent is closer than his 2019 second half.
Zack Wheeler: The Many Faces of Luck
First half stats: 119.0 IP, 4.69 ERA, .255/.305/.400, .297 wOBA, 3.82 K/BB, 1.21 HR/9, 1.28 WHIP, .313 BABIP, 65.9 LOB%, 3.66 FIP, 13.7 HR/FB
Second half stats: 76.1 IP, 2.83 ERA, .262/.300/.376, .288 wOBA, 4.06 K/BB, 0.71 HR/9, 1.23 WHIP, .309 BABIP, 79.7 LOB%, 3.20 FIP, 7.1 HR/FB
A part of Wheeler’s first half “struggles” (yes, he had a 4.69 ERA, but his FIP was almost a full run lower) can be explained by his HR/FB luck and the Mets’ defense. The former hovered around 10.0 HR/FB for most of his career, and it was 13.7 before the break. Luck started to even out in the second half (7.1 HR/FB) and his HR/9 naturally fell from 1.21 to 0.71 between halves.
The Mets’ defense was a season-long issue. JD Davis was very bad with the glove, especially at third base, and other infielders and outfielders were a negative defensively. Robinson Cano doesn’t cover much ground these days, and Amed Rosario had a -16 DRS register.
As you can see, indicators like the triple-slash line, wOBA, K/BB, WHIP, and BABIP were largely unchanged. However, he was very unlucky in the first half when it came to men left on base.
His career LOB% is 71.4, and he had 65.9 before the All-Star break. The fortune gods started to smile again in the second half when he had a 79.7 mark.
According to Fangraphs’ data, there weren’t any major changes in his pitch mix, other than he upped his slider usage (to 22 percent) four percentage points at the expense of his seldom-used split-finger, which was practically erased from his repertoire. All in all, Wheeler was unlucky in the first half and a little bit on the lucky side in the second given his high LOB% and low HR/FB, and when things evened out, he finished with a sub-4.00 ERA season and a K per inning.
Mike Clevinger: The consolidation of a stud
First half stats: 24.1 IP, 4.44 ERA, .165/.250/.294, .239 wOBA, 4.00 K/BB, 0.74 HR/FB, 0.99 WHIP, .273 BABIP, 56.6 LOB%, 2.23 FIP, 13.3 HR/FB
Second half stats: 101.2 IP, 2.30 ERA, .219/.275/.340, .266 wOBA, 4.78 K/BB, 0.71 HR/9, 1.07 WHIP, .312 BABIP, 85.2 LOB%, 2.55 FIP, 9.1 HR/FB
Maybe I am cheating here, considering that Clevinger only pitched 24.1 frames in the first half. In those innings, he had a 4.44 ERA even though he held batters to a .165/.250/.294 line. But man, what a second half he had.
A 4.78 K/BB for a starter is mind-boggling. He even had a BABIP north of .300! That means he wasn’t particularly lucky, even though his 85.2 LOB% is rather high. He is just very good at baseball.
When people thought Clevinger couldn’t be better than he was in 2017, he improved his numbers in 2018. And when folks thought he peaked in 2018, he shattered expectations in his injury-shortened 2019.
We are not here to tell you that something clicked in Clevinger’s second half. We are here to tell you to treat him like a bonafide ace because he is one now and proved it after the break. Don’t let the 126 total innings fool you. He is the real deal and belongs in the elite.
Sonny Gray; Rebound Year Verified by Strong Second Half
First half stats: 90.1 IP, 3.59 ERA, .224/.293/.344, .275 wOBA, 3.12 K/BB, 0.90 HR/9, 1.18 WHIP, .289 BABIP, 73.4 LOB%, 3.36 FIP, 13.8 HR/FB
Second half stats: 85.0 IP, 2.12 ERA, .165/.267/.302, .253 wOBA, 2.91 K/BB, 0.85 HR/9, 0.98 WHIP, .215 BABIP, 87.4 LOB%, 3.48 FIP, 12.1 HR/FB
By analyzing the numbers on the surface, Gray had a fantastic second half after a 2018 to forget with the Yankees. He was phenomenal, and there is no denying that. He got, however, a little lucky: it is very hard to sustain an 87.4 LOB and a .215 for a significant period of time.
In fact, judging by FIP, Gray was consistently excellent the whole season. Now, that doesn’t mean that his pitch mix didn’t change from half to half.
In fact, it did. According to Fangraphs, he reduced his fastball usage (from 48.4% to 46.8%) and ditched his changeup (10.1% to 1.0%) to bump his slider usage (17.9% to 25.9%.) That was probably a good idea, as the slider was 11.2 runs above average.
Gray’s slider was something to behold in 2019. Batters hit .117 against the pitch, with a .201 SLG and a .210 xwOBA. Gray had a 40.7 K%, a 40.4 whiff rate and a 23.7 put away % with the slider. No wonder he used it more after the All-Star festivities.
Look for the right-hander to show a dominant version once again in 2020 behind his slider. Maybe not with a sub-3.00 ERA, maybe not fueled by a sub-.220 BABIP, but good enough to have some staying power in your fantasy plans.
Chris Bassitt: Interesting Late-Round Arm
First half stats: 77.2 IP, 4.29 ERA, .221/.307/.400, .302 wOBA, 2.34 K/BB, 1.27 HR/9, 1.24 WHIP, .254 BABIP, 73.9 LOB%, 4.59 FIP, 12.9 HR/FB
Second half stats: 66.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, .239/.299/.388, .295 wOBA, 4.40 K/BB, 1.36 HR/9, 1.15 WHIP, .282 BABIP, 79.7 LOB%, 4.18 FIP, 14.9 HR/FB
Bassitt went from being a usable streamer in the first half to a reliable starter in the second. He is worthy of consideration for fantasy squads if he manages to break camp in the Athletics’ rotation this season.
The most remarkable improvement he showed between halves in 2019 was in the K/BB department. Making the jump from 2.34 to 4.40 shows a noticeable skill improvement.
He managed to cut his BB% almost in half: he had a 3.71 mark before the break and a 2.04 register after the festivities.
Bassitt is a sinkerballer that relied heavily in his sinker and four-seamer, throwing them a combined 67 percent of the time in the second half. He upped his changeup usage and reduced the slider frequency after the break, which was necessary to mess with hitters’ timing. His curveball and slider both had negative marks per Fangraphs’ pitch values, and the offspeed offering was 2.4 runs above average.
Yes, his 79.7 LOB% after the break may be a tad high, and his .282 BABIP seems a little low. However, neither number is scandalous. Bassitt has some staying power: not as an ace, but as a solid back-end hurler in standard leagues.
Jeff Samardzija: Not Buying In
First half stats: 98.2 IP, 4.01 ERA, .240/.299/.420, .300 wOBA, 2.86 K/BB, 1.28 HR/9, 1.21 WHIP, .265 BABIP, 69.9 LOB%, 4.44 FIP, 11.5 HR/FB
Second half stats: 82.2 IP, 2.94 ERA, .205/.259/.399, .276 wOBA, 2.86 K/BB, 1.52 HR/9, 0.99 WHIP, .208 BABIP, 88.3 LOB%, 4.76 FIP, 14.0 HR/FB
Samardzija got away with a lot of luck on his fastball. He held hitters to a .174 average with the pitch, but the expected batting average was .228. The same with the slugging: the offering held batters to a .403 slugging percentage, but the xSLG was .516. The wOBA was .293, but the xwOBA was .350. The average exit velocity was 91.5 mph, which is high.
While there is also a notable disparity between the cutter’s wOBA and the xwOBA (.249 to .289, respectively) it was Samardzija’s best pitch. By that logic, he decided to throw it more often in the second half, bumping its usage to 19.2% to 27.9%.
However, while the ERA tells us he was better in the second half, FIP says it was actually the opposite. He had a better ERA after the break, but his 4.44 FIP was better in the first half, at least compared to his 4.76 mark after the All-Star.
There is just no way a pitcher can have a 2.94 ERA with a 6.53 K/9 and a 34.7 GB% for a sustained period of time. Samardzija’s .208 BABIP and 88.3 LOB% provide part of the explanation. But that isn’t sustainable.
Using your best pitches more often and ditching the worst ones is usually one of the recipes for success. And it is possible that Samardzija is, once again, a solid back-end starter for the San Francisco Giants. However, only deep leaguers should consider him for their fantasy squads.
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